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July 28, 2015

Who’s choosing schools of choice in Michigan?

Students who participate in Michigan’s increasingly popular schools of choice program are more likely to be black, poor and academically weaker than their peers, indicates new research led by a Michigan State University education scholar.

The study is the first to examine who participates in schools of choice, which was established in the mid-1990s and allows students to attend school districts other than their own. Participation nearly doubled between the 2005-06 and 2012-13 school years, the study finds, even as overall enrollment in Michigan’s K-12 schools declined during that eight-year period.

Interestingly, though, the students who are more apt to enroll in schools of choice are also the students most likely to leave the program, said Joshua Cowen, MSU associate professor of education policy. The Walton Family Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education funded the research.

“Our findings suggest that participation in schools of choice is dynamic: to choose is not necessarily to stay,” said Cowen, lead investigator on the study. “One practical result of the schools of choice program is that school district borders were opened to students who are more mobile in the first place.”

Most states offer some form of schools of choice, which – like charter schools and voucher programs – is seen partially as a way to offer high-quality education to poor, disadvantaged students. School choice continues to be a controversial issue among scholars, policymakers and the public alike.

In Michigan, the number of students in schools of choice increased from 66,560 in 2005-06 to 115,209 in 2012-13 – a 42 percent spike. Schools of choice enrollment also accounted for a larger percentage of the state’s overall student population, rising from just 3.7 percent of 1.8 million students in 2005-06, to 7.1 percent of 1.6 million students in 2012-13.

The study examined schools of choice participants based on race; income levels as measured by free and reduced lunch participation; and performance on statewide math and reading exams.

Cowen said the study does not estimate the effect of schools of choice on changes in student achievement or draw conclusions about potential racial segregation in school districts. Future research will explore those areas.